My best friend Heidi and I laid all the gear on the living room floor while August, Heidi’s two-year-old son, danced through the piles asking if he could eat the Snickers bar that was going into our food bag. When Heidi became a mom, we knew our yearly adventure would go from backpacking, to backpacking with a baby, then to backpacking with a toddler… and on up. Our methods would need some readjusting. However, when Heidi and I were researching backpacking with toddlers, there seemed to be a lack of information about gear to use and helpful hints. So, we figured it out ourselves.
Here are 8 tested and true suggestions for your own backcountry-with-small-child adventure.
1. When choosing gear, keep weight in mind
When one of your hiking partners is just along for the ride, expect to be carrying in between 35-55lbs each. I’d suggest enlisting your friends, a partner or dogs to help divide the weight. For our trips, Heidi carries August and I have a 70L bag for everything that doesn’t fit into the storage underneath his seat. For sleeping, we both used Therm-a-Rest sleeping bags (weighing in at a total of 3lbs 11oz together!) and put a Small ProLite sleeping pad between our mattresses for August if he rolled out of Heidi’s bag. Trekking poles can take a lot of weight off of your joints on steep ups and downs and are great for steadying yourself.
2. Pick a comfortable distance
Starting out with day hikes builds both you and your kid’s comfort level in the outdoors. For backpacking and overnight trips, try to choose a distance that is manageable for both of you to stretch your legs, but not long enough that you’ll stress about making it to camp before the sun goes down.
3. Layers are important
Cold alpine nights but hot summer days? Pack clothes for your child like you’re packing for yourself. A protective sun layer, hat, fleece and down jacket are must-haves. It may be obvious, but its worth reiterating: when backpacking with toddlers, keep them comfy. Clothes that wash easily and dry quickly after food spills could make a difference in bear safety when you crawl into the tent for the night. For a rain cover for Heidi’s child-carrier backpack, we’ve tried everything from extra-large rain jackets to holes cut in garbage bags. Try a variety of combinations before you leave to find what works best for you.
4. Don’t cut corners on the medical kit
Some key ingredients in the medical bag are Band-aids, children’s Tylenol, allergy medicine, blister kit, more band-aids, ibuprofen and Imodium. Bug spray and sunscreen are also important additions. Then, double the amount you think you might need. It’s much better to walk away with extra than not enough.
5. Pick toddler-friendly campsites
Backpacking with toddlers is an exercise in accommodation. Try to find flat spots away from water and big drops so that your child can explore while still being in your eyesight. A lakeside view is definitely scenic, but it takes much longer to set up the tent and cook dinner when you’re preoccupied with the geography of your campsite.
6. Disposable, compostable or cloth diapers?
The answer to this might depend on your frontcountry preference. Regardless, bury the contents as you would for your own Leave No Trace routine. I’ve found it’s best to put all of the trash in the dog’s pack, so it’s separate from the food we are carrying.
7. Pick food that your child will eat, too
Luckily, August isn’t a picky eater but we also carry snacks that are just for him. Try fruit pouches, trail mix, and dehydrated fruit. It’s also helpful for your child to have his or her own water bottle so water intake is monitored.
8. Boredom happens
If your child isn’t sleeping in the pack or hiking, try to have options for entertainment. Heidi has attached a toy to the top loop of her pack and safety-pinned August’s favorite stuffed animal to the bag so he has something to play with while hiking. Also, include them in the conversation! It’s a great opportunity to talk about what you’re seeing on the trail. If bringing a small book will ease bedtime, it’s worth the extra weight.
As cliché as it sounds, the most important thing is to have fun! Backpacking is a great opportunity to spend quality time with kids, and witnessing what they are experiencing can give you a whole new appreciation for the outdoors.
- Backpacking with Babies Tips for Getting Started
- 5 Tips for Getting Kids Outdoors & Loving It
- 5 Benefits of Cold Weather Backpacking with a Baby
Updated. Originally Published August 25, 2015.